About The Production
In the darkened room of a roadside motel, two armed and determined-looking men
plan their next move. The windows are blocked with cardboard. As the evening
news broadcasts the abduction of a young boy named Alton, the boy himself sits
under a sheet on the floor, his face obscured by heavy goggles.
It's time to go.
But if this ominous scenario is what it appears to be, the child seems oddly
serene. Who is Alton Meyer? Where are these men taking him? And is this a
kidnapping, or some kind of daring escape? It's these questions and the deeper
mystery that lies beyond them that drive the events in writer/director Jeff
Nichols' "Midnight Special," at once a supernatural thriller and an enigmatic
and thought-provoking journey into the unknownâ€¦and the unknowable.
"I wanted to make a chase movie, a movie about guys moving on back roads through
the American South in a fast car, driving at night with their lights off,"
Nichols begins, setting the stage for characters embarking on a collision course
with something bigger than they imagine. "They're on the run, they're being
hunted and, at the same time, they're racing towards something important, though
we don't immediately know what it is."
But what appears on its face as an urgent but straightforward pursuit soon
reveals layers of depth and a mystifying, otherworldly tenor. As the
relationships between the fugitives and their pursuers come into sharper focus,
the audience is taken along on an adventure the nature and magnitude of which
they can only guess. Says Nichols, "I often compare this film to the reverse of
one of those Russian nesting dolls, which start out large and open up multiple
times to produce smaller and smaller versions until you get down to the core.
This starts with a kind of indie feel, where you're on the road with these guys,
and then it gets progressively bigger and bigger until it falls off the edges of
In this case, the core is Alton, played by Jaeden Lieberher.
There's something very special, and possibly dangerous, about Alton. From his
uncanny composure and sense of purpose beyond his years, to the inexplicable
white light that emanates from his eyes and can either wreak stunning
destruction or mesmerize people into a state of indescribable euphoria - albeit
at great cost to his own increasingly fragile body - this is a child whose
capabilities defy earthly explanation. As one of the story's central characters
attests, in a way that could prove either chilling or reassuring: he's not like
Somehow, Alton can access and repeat highly technical classified information as
effortlessly as tuning a television. It's these powers and abilities that have
made him the prized possession of a religious cult that believes he's imparting
messages from the Divine and, more recently, the object of a federal manhunt, as
word reaches the highest levels of government that an eight-year-old is somehow
intercepting top-secret military satellite transmissions.
Traveling with Alton are his father, Roy, played by Michael Shannon, and Roy's
childhood friend Lucas, played by Joel Edgerton. Along the way they enlist the
support of Alton's mother, Sarah, played by Kirsten Dunst. Committed to help
Alton fulfill his destiny, they will leave behind the lives they knew and do
things they never thought possible in a race towards a destination and an
appointment that calls only to him. Barely a step behind are the police and the
FBI, as well as the NSA, in the form of agent Sevier, played by Adam Driver, and
the single-minded devotees of the Third Heaven Ranch, led by Sam Shepard as the
charismatic and cagey Calvin.
"I appreciate the ambiguity of it," declares Shannon, who has played an integral
part in each of Nichols' previous films and returns to take the lead in
"Midnight Special." "Most people have some mystery in their lives; they are
confounded by certain unanswerable questions. I don't think Roy really knows
what's happening with his son."
Nichols, who cites the mood and style of such 1980s sci-fi classics as "Starman"
among his artistic influences and inspirations, says, "There's the suggestion
that Alton is meant for something or somewhere else, that his powers are
symptoms of what he's meant to do. As he starts to understand what his abilities
are and take control of them, he starts to get healthier and better, whereas
when his father tries to control them, for Alton's own sake, it actually makes
him sicker. Roy and Lucas don't understand his capabilities. And we as the
audience aren't supposed to understand them, either. In one way that's a
metaphor for the fact that our kids are going to be who they are and we just
have to have faith in that and let them go."
In a larger sense, "This is about belief in something you don't understand,"
Nichols continues, insofar as the story explores the nature of faith in its many
forms, and the lengths to which people will go for what that means to them.
"What would you do if you knew your child was bound for somewhere you couldn't
"Midnight Special" is Nichols' fourth film. Structured as a fast-moving thriller
with supernatural overtones, it is also, at its heart, about the love and trust
between a parent and child. In that respect, it's indicative of Nichols'
critically acclaimed body of work, from his auspicious debut with "Shotgun
Stories," to "Take Shelter," which swept the Cannes Film Festival, and 2012's
critical, festival and audience favorite "Mud." Each has explored, in its own
way, the transcendent and universal theme of family bonds.
Producer Sarah Green, marking her third collaboration with the director, notes,
"There are many elements that go into what makes a Jeff Nichols film. The reason
I'm so drawn to his work, like many people, is that he can make a satisfying
genre film, he can make a drama, he can make any kind of film and, no matter
what, it will be heart-based. It's always about the human condition, and love.
It's about how we relate to each other in the most pure way."
For Nichols, the idea for "Midnight Special" harks back to a profoundly
traumatic moment when his year-old son had a sudden medical emergency, plunging
him into a panic. The situation was resolved and the boy was fine, but that
agonizing experience brought a flood of fears and insights to the first-time
father, some of which Nichols sought to express in the film. "I realized that
having a child means giving up a part of yourself to the universe," he says.
"It's like a wound has opened up that will never heal and will always be open to
injury. If something happens to that child, you will feel it because you love
him so much. It's a helpless feeling, too, knowing that there is now this person
in your life that you would do anything for, but in some ways you really have no
control over. That was the basis for 'Midnight Special.' 'Take Shelter' was
written by a man who was about to become a father, and all the anxiety that
entails, while 'Midnight Special' was written by a man who already is a father."
Another Nichols hallmark is the way he engages audiences to put the pieces of
the story together as it unfolds, trusting them to make the vital links while he
keeps the pace.
"I find it enormously rewarding because you're always moving forward," says
Green, "and when you get to the end you realize how everything worked together.
It was all there, but it wasn't handed to you."
It's what makes his work, in producer Brian Kavanaugh-Jones' estimation, "real
page-turners, made possible by the extent to which he develops his characters.
Even if you don't know the all the details and background, and you catch them at
a very specific moment in their lives, it's all there. Jeff knows his characters
so well and writes them so well, that even in a script like this, where so much
is unsaid, every sentence is imbued with meaning. It doesn't take long to get to
know Roy and the others. You sense their history. Jeff tells his story and knows
where he's going with it, but I think he's also good at letting people believe
what they believe and take what they take out of it."
"So much of this film was about designing how to lay out the information and how
people would receive it," says Nichols. "Audiences are extraordinarily good at
making connections between characters. It's how our brains work. When a movie
starts, people immediately start processing information and putting the puzzle
together, so it's a fascinating thing to play off, and play with. You can
actually lead people in one direction and then bring something else up. If I
defined every experience, that's all it would be; but if I allow some things to
be defined by the audience it could be anything, and that's very exciting to
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